Hip-hop visionary or egomaniac? Our contributors lace up and parry over Kanye West's outsized accomplishments.
March 16, 2011
By Kathy Iandoli and Phil Freeman
Special to MSN Music
(Editor's note: Even the most successful artists can provoke split opinions over their work, and the more prominent the star, the more certain the prospect of disagreement. That's where fans and critics bring their passion and that's the point of our new series of critical face-offs between MSN Music's writers, bloggers and reviewers. With apologies to Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher, our riff on "Fight Club" focuses on producer, performer, fashionista and provocateur Kanye West.)
Kanye West. The man, the myth, the legend. The egomaniac. Throughout his decade-and-a-half-long career, he has crafted some of the finest art in hip-hop, yet paired it with some of the most erratic behavior. It's all eyes and all ears on Kanye West, whether one is enjoying his music or simply bewildered by the spectacle. For the debut of MSN Music's Fight Club, two writers weigh the pros and cons of Mr. West. Should one man have all that power?
Phil Freeman: I feel like West, as both producer and performer, is emblematic of 21st century hip-hop's bloat and self-importance. He needs choirs, orchestras, incredibly expensive classic-rock samples (how much money do you think King Crimson wanted to let "21st Century Schizoid Man" be used on "Power"?), all to express ... nothing beyond his endless fascination with himself. Even in a genre built around egotism and braggadocio, West sets a high, high bar. His breathtaking prickishness could almost be interesting, except for the obnoxious way he demands love and respect for portraying himself as a d-bag, as though strutting and shoving material success in the audience's face is somehow a commendable display of emotional honesty.
And that's just his persona. On a musical level, the art's just not there. None of his singles have convinced me he's anything but a dull-to-mediocre rapper, and the production does little to shatter or even twist hip-hop's paradigms in any major way.
Kathy Iandoli: Regardless of West's opinion of himself and his craft, he's earned his stripes in hip-hop and has done amazing things to push the genre and the culture forward. From helping to propel Jay-Z's mainstream career by producing tracks like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" to reinventing the wheel with "College Dropout," Kanye entered the game with a true understanding of hip-hop, something most new-school rappers and producers lack. While he doesn't rank lyrically with rap's historical wordsmiths, he holds his own on the mic and, production-wise, has dabbled with sounds that most producers previously scoffed at. He's doing for hip-hop what the Fugees did back in '96, which was experimenting in a way that was previously shunned or feared. When would a hip-hop head ever have been exposed to King Crimson or Bon Iver before Kanye? Furthermore, even groups like Daft Punk have gotten career recharges thanks to Kanye's sampling. Unlike sound-jackers like Puffy, Kanye has a true understanding of the music that he's working with. He has evolved beyond the borders of hip-hop and is approaching iconic status. He has mastered the ability to conceptually match visuals with his music. He has set the bar for anyone willing to mix genres while still remaining under the umbrella of hip-hop. Finally, he became a cultural icon long before his mentor Jay-Z did, thereby paving the way for Jay to do the same. If Kanye's conceited, he has a reason.
Phil Freeman: Your point that West probably brought King Crimson, Bon Iver and Daft Punk to new and larger audiences is well taken. (I'm actually curious to learn how Crimson came to his attention.) I would dispute your slap at Diddy, though; I think "Last Train to Paris" is a smarter, better conceived, more adult album than "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." Too bad it's outside the scope of this discussion.
I'd like to raise the issue of Kanye's recent videos. He's gotten criticized for either allowing or encouraging Hype Williams to basically steal the opening credits of Gaspar Noe's recent film-festival hit "Enter the Void" for his "All of the Lights" video. Similarly, the "Power" video is basically a remake of an earlier piece by its director, Marco Brambilla. It's as if West saw Brambilla's art piece "Civilization" and called him up to say, "Love your work. Now make one just like it, but all about me." Earlier in his video career, he was content to steal from pop culture: "Stronger " re-created scenes from "Akira" with West in the Tetsuo role; he cast himself as Evel Knievel in "Touch the Sky" (probably my favorite of his videos). Why do you think he's so interested in appropriating high art (a term I hate, but it'll have to do) all of a sudden? And at what point does he do so much stuff that's out of touch with hip-hop's origins in the street that he ceases to be a hip-hop artist? I think he's attempting some kind of grand synthesis with his importation of musicians, from Coldplay to the six dozen people who have barely noticeable backing vocals on "All of the Lights," but it doesn't work. It just seems gratuitous, even wasteful. This brings me back to the idea that his entire career is a monument to his own ego; that makes it -- no matter how catchy the larger public may find the songs -- ultimately alienating.
Pop music should be about universals, catchy melodies married to lyrics that everyday people can relate to. I feel like West, by writing about things almost no one listening to the records can relate to and portraying himself in such a gaudy, larger-than-life manner, has abandoned universal appeal. He no longer wants to speak FOR his audience (he never did, really), he wants to be worshipped by them, and that's what I find most off-putting about him.
Kathy Iandoli: Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that pop music should be about universals. However, Kanye West is a hip-hop artist with pop appeal. What Kanye is doing for the hip-hop audience is that he's taking art and sound and fashion and everything else that has either fallen into obscurity or has never been absorbed by the hip-hop audience and making it digestible for them.
When Kanye made a "Ye-inspired" version of "Enter the Void" for "All of the Lights," we should see how many Kanye fans attempted to either Netflix or YouTube the introduction to that film. That brought Gaspar Noe to the hip-hop world. The same for Bon Iver and King Crimson -- when would that have ever happened before ? From a pop standpoint -- if we are to believe Kanye West is considered a pop artist -- Kanye is still pushing boundaries of music by infusing art and style. Pop music by traditional and recent standards lacks genuine substance. The music is based upon bpms and sequins. That is why someone like Lady Gaga stands out so much, because she's doing something different outside of the formulaic pop swill we've been ingesting since the first 'N Sync album. If someone (Kanye West) is using Gaspar Noe or Marco Brambilla to inspire his projects, isn't he then giving substance to something that was arguably lacking it? Are we to say Kanye West is doing less for pop music than, say, Britney Spears? It seems as though any time Kanye West does something awe-inspiring, we are reminded of his inflated sense of self and ego. Yet most of the great artists of our generation and those before us have been unbearable human beings on the personality front. Just because Kanye is honest about his sense of self doesn't make what he's doing any less important. If anything he just has the passion to do it. Like he said, "I found bravery in my bravado." I think we've forgotten the importance of risk takers in music.
And yes, Diddy's "Last Train to Paris" was a great work for anyone too scared to understand the parameters of real hip-hop. Diddy has cornered the market for making "hip-pop" music for scared pop fans. But that is not who Kanye West is catering to. Kanye is reaching the audience of audiophiles and artistic neophytes who demand more from the music they hear on the radio. If you think not enough of those people exist, check Kanye's album sales.
Phil Freeman: I think West should be considered a hip-hop artist because that's where he got his start, but he's also a pop artist just because he's sold a lot of records. Irving Berlin famously said, "Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it," which in a way means that anything that is sufficiently popular is automatically pop music. I agree that most American pop is bland and awful, particularly in the last few years with the rise of Auto-Tune and chintzy keyboard sounds serving as the backbone of tracks meant to be heard through cell phones rather than decent speakers. Hip-hop has suffered from this a lot. Producers started using keyboards instead of samplers so they wouldn't have to pay fees to old musicians, but they lack the compositional skills to come up with something as good as the old songs they could no longer afford to borrow. I'll give West credit for pumping money into his art; his tracks do sound better than almost any other rapper out there.
What continues to confuse me, though, is the question of whether people find West -- or, at any rate, the version of him that exists in his lyrics, videos and public pronouncements, because neither you nor I actually know him -- likable. In commercial terms, he is popular: His albums sell. So do the people who buy his records like him? Admire him? Aspire to be like him? Or has he become a man people love to hate, a musical supervillain?
I'm also curious what you think his legacy will be, beyond his own string of hits. Most hip-hop artists come in under someone else's wing -- Jay-Z brought Kanye to the party, for example -- and then sponsor other young performers in turn. Kanye West doesn't seem particularly interested in fielding a squad of young up-and-comers; instead, he fixates on making connections for himself. He's got Chris Martin from Coldplay singing on a song; he's got Fergie and Bon Iver and all these other performers, each of whom has already achieved something, performing on other tracks. But it seems like he's only interested in self-promotion, in the musical equivalent of social climbing. "Look who I can get to guest on my record," he announces, over and over. But a big part of hip-hop is about remembering where you came from, not pulling the ladder up after yourself, and I think that's what he's doing at this point. Even 50 Cent, his onetime rival, had G-Unit, a bunch of lower-status rappers whose careers he attempted to elevate. There is no "K-Unit," which makes West seem not only egocentric but ungrateful.
Kathy Iandoli: On the contrary, West has an entire crew of new and underappreciated artists that he has since realigned under his G.O.O.D. Music roster. G.O.O.D. Music in its earliest stages (around 2006-2007) was the breeding ground for John Legend's singing career. It doubled as a management company and part-time record label. While Legend's career took off, G.O.O.D. Music lost some steam and some artists flew under the radar (i.e. Rhymefest). However, at the 2010 BET Hip-Hop Awards during their rap cyphers, Kanye West introduced the new G.O.O.D. Music. In that cypher? Rapper Big Sean, CyHi Da Prynce, Pusha T of the Clipse and Common. The only members missing were Mos Def, along with ancillary figures Consequence and GLC. So yes, Kanye West is in fact looking to build his legacy by bringing new blood into the game, or a "K-Unit," as you say. In addition, he is taking rappers whose rap careers needed resuscitating (Common and Mos Def had long since ventured into acting) and stamping a cosign on them. Pusha T is the most obvious example. The Clipse were highly underrated forever, and now Pusha T's solo career has been given a fighting chance. His reintroduction 'My God" is shaping up to be a 2011 hip-hop anthem. It's important this is mentioned, because while you are labeling Kanye West a "pop" artist because of his popularity, you have completely missed everything he is doing full-time for hip-hop. There is much more to this saga than public outbursts, shutter shades, and Louis Vuitton backpacks.
I say all of that to say this: If we focus on the artist rather than the art, then we are missing out on a lot of this legacy-building that you discuss. Just because West has the confidence to admit what he is doing is legendary, doesn't make it any less legendary. I think that because West is such a public figure, people forget the quality of his output. And yes, remembering where you came from was extremely important in hip-hop ... in the '80s and '90s. Once the tax bracket changed, the original stomping grounds become less and less connected to the career progress. If Kanye continues to reiterate "I do this for Chicago," then eventually people would have something to say about that as well. So if he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, why not repeat your success as much as you can?
As Kanye West says in "All of the Lights": "I was looking at my résumé / feeling real fresh today / they rewrite history / I don't believe in yesterday."
Kathy Iandoli has written for publications including The Source, YRB,
BUST, XXL,VIBE, RIME and Vapors, and her work has appeared online at MTV, AOL
and MSN Music sites. She is the former Alternatives Editor of AllHipHop.com and
the current Music Editor of HipHopDX.com.
Phil Freeman writes the Headbang blog for MSN Music and is a freelance contributor to the Village Voice, Allmusic.com and other magazines, newspapers and websites.